Writers of nonfiction are consumed by the truth of things. Is it true? Did it happen that specific way? Is that what they really said? As writers, sometimes we have concrete answers to these questions, but sometimes we don’t. When we’re writing from personal experience, we can’t always remember, precisely, who said what when, and it’s hard to gauge someone else’s intentions no matter how well we think we know that person.
Nonfiction, considered in and of itself, is strictly factual (or at least should be), and often brings to mind the kind of writing found in encyclopedias, medical journals, etc. – empirical and objective by its very nature. It is what it is. But that’s just one writer’s perspective.
A kind of crossover nonfiction or bridge between an empirical kind of nonfiction and what is referred to as creative nonfiction is essay writing. Here the writer uses personal experience to bring a reader to what the writer has discovered – a personal experience that gets us to the facts. Annie Dillard and Barbara Kingsolver, two of many wonderful essayists, come to mind right away.
Then there is memoir – which involves a whole host of problems if “facts” are the fodder we use to bring the experience, and the point it develops, to light.
Although I’ve written things in other genres, creative nonfiction is where my heart is. And I say that with some reticence as there continues to be discussion about what creative nonfiction is. Is it like the stick-to-the-facts ma’am, just the facts admonition that Sgt. Joe Friday cautioned crime-scene witnesses in the television series known as Dragnet in the ‘50s and ‘60s? Or is it more like what Dinty Moore, himself a writer of creative nonfiction and the editor of Brevity an online journal, described as relating “to the method of storytelling – a careful and skillful application of literary techniques” in a response to the question: “What Exactly is Creative Nonfiction?” If you ask enough people, you will get nearly as many varied responses.
What we lack is a singular, concrete definition, and you have to wonder why that is (okay, you might not, but I do). No one asks what fiction is or what poetry is (at least they didn’t used to when it all rhymed), and no one has to wonder what an op-ed piece is either.
Not so with creative nonfiction. How can it be both creative yet true at the same time? Is it a misnomer? An oxymoron?
When I read in any genre, I look first at a writer’s command of the language. Are his/her words contextually appropriate, are they nuanced, do they evoke a sense of something that reaches into the mind’s eye and lingers afterward like the light scent of a fine perfume whose wearer left the room hours ago? Do the secondary associations those words call to mind more fully flesh out a character, summon a feeling, engender an idea, or embody a sense of something larger? Are they portraits of something exquisitely drawn? However a particular genre is defined, creative nonfiction included, the language used and its rendition on the page is crucial.
Maybe “creative” sends the wrong message, its connotation suggestive of deliberate invention. Nonfiction that is noted as literary, rather than creative, allows for a measure of manipulation of words, though not the facts, solely to make the presentation of the truth of something more dramatic and compelling. The facts are not altered, only their presentation made more purposeful.
This does not, however, address truths that are sometimes subjective and biased. Qualification is required for those – this is my truth; that is yours. Portrayal, word choice, and examples chosen for inclusion, or those deliberately omitted, skew a reader’s perception of the message and the portrayal of individuals involved – and this is the problem with “creative.”
If we’re talking about literary nonfiction, like memoir, things can get sticky, for memoir involves more than just verifiable facts. Because no two people see things, experience events, or remember traumas in the same way, many factors can impede the coherence of perceptions, aka facts – they are colored by age, status, emotions, position in the family or community, any number of things that cause individuals who witnessed the same thing to remember that thing differently because they were looking through, not rose-colored glasses, but different lenses. Of greater importance maybe is the truth that fluctuates with the passage of time, our respective lenses changing with that same age and distance causing the problem in the first place. In making nonfiction “literary” to enhance a reader’s experience and interest, writers have adopted many of the techniques used in fiction (dialogue, description, non-linear presentation, etc.), bridging the genres and raising the specter of veracity in pieces whose core is the truth of the matter.
Whatever terminology one prefers, what’s important is what nonfiction does, what purpose it serves.
I think it’s a process rather than a product, one that allows a writer to explore a topic and watch it morph into something that reveals a buried truth or offers a larger perspective that can only be gained with time and distance from the subject. It encourages looking at the past, again, through a clearer lens – one not occluded by emotion, one not inhibited by a lack of knowledge, and one as free from bias born of the web of personal relationships as possible. It allows for the development of a different, indeed, a fuller understanding of events and people, even if it doesn’t always provide clear-cut answers.
At the same time writers of literary nonfiction use the tools of fiction to draw readers into their stories, they must remain true to their intent to present the truth of a story to the best of their recollection. They must gather what facts they can in support of that truth and be honest with their readers, as well as with themselves, with regard to whose truth it is.
But that’s just my truth.
For other interesting perspectives check out Jill Talbot’s Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact and Dinty Moore’s response, What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth, as well as Micah McCrary’s Creative Nonfiction: In Defense of the Truth (with a lowercase T). Also, The Ever-Shifting Truth and the Creative Nonfiction Writer’s Journey to Find it, by Shining Li.